Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

What Does It Take to Make a Teacher? Allowing Teachers to Learn at Children's Expense Is Unethical. We Must Build a System for Ensuring That New Teachers Have the Requisite Professional Skills and Know How to Use Them

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

What Does It Take to Make a Teacher? Allowing Teachers to Learn at Children's Expense Is Unethical. We Must Build a System for Ensuring That New Teachers Have the Requisite Professional Skills and Know How to Use Them

Article excerpt

The gateway to teaching has been widening. Although the principal way to become a teacher used to be through higher education, most states now sanction a variety of options, including district-based "residency" programs, "alternative" programs such as Teach for America, and training online. Compared with other professions, there are increasingly varied ways to enter the field.

That it is so easy to enter teaching should give pause. The stakes--the education of young people--are high, and teachers' work is far from simple. Consider teaching a child to read, making algebra sensible to a group of uninterested adolescents, leading a productive discussion of a short story, or communicating effectively with parents. Add to that assessing students' learning and interpreting and using data to improve the effectiveness of instruction. These are not tasks that come naturally. Yet we lack a reliable system for preparing those who want to teach. The sheer need for teachers--the nation's largest workforce--has always overshadowed the need to refine their training.

The fact is that we do not know the best way to train people to do this work skillfully. This is a serious collective problem. Banking on untested approaches to teacher education, some of which rely primarily on common sense and experience, is a risky formula for the education of our nation's youth. When a beginning teacher does not figure out the job, students are the losers.

But we now have the opportunity to change this. We are in the middle of a significant national experiment in how to educate teachers. There are distinct approaches worth studying: extended internships with practicing teachers, aggressive recruitment of elite college graduates, and virtual coursework, to name just a few examples. Even "traditional" higher education is far from homogeneous.

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This is a crucial moment for education in this country. Although most U.S. teachers continue to be prepared in colleges and universities, public confidence in the value of university-based teacher education is low. In fact, there is widespread skepticism about professional preparation for teaching, with many advocating for a strong liberal education coupled with on-the-job experience.

We call that viewpoint the "smart people" perspective. Its adherents believe that the "soft" curriculum of education schools insults the intelligence of people who want to become teachers and fails to prepare them for the realities of classrooms. The key fallacy in the "smart people" argument is that it as-sumes that effective professional training is not possible and, therefore, not necessary. This view implies that knowing one's subject and then gaining teaching experience is all it takes.

There is a sensible logic to this view, but it glosses over vital distinctions. What does it mean to "know one's subject" well enough to teach it? And when does experience contribute to developing skill, and when is it merely time spent? If teaching were so simple, then veteran teachers would be uniformly skillful. Certainly, not all teachers acquire high levels of instructional prowess. They do not hear students' ideas adequately, they lack skill in talking with parents, they do not track on their students' understanding, and they are occasionally impatient and even unkind. Nothing about "having experience" automatically develops and improves teaching.

If the "smart person" perspective is simplistic, then what's a more developed one? The natural experiment currently under way offers an unparalleled opportunity to uncover the key elements of responsible professional training. It is not a competition between "traditional" and "alternative" paths to teaching. What is most important is that graduates of any path must be capable of effective practice. To figure out how to ensure that requires research on the outcomes of different approaches.

Three key domains of professional preparation merit careful investigation: teachers' preparation in the content they will teach, the curriculum of practice essential for beginning teaching, and the approaches and settings best suited for effective professional learning. …

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